Watching this week’s “Breaking Bad,” I kept thinking of the advice Omar gave Renaldo on “The Wire”: “How you expect to run with the wolves come night when you spend all day sparring with the puppies?” He was talking about staying strong over time and refusing to break in the face of competition, but underneath that was the idea of constant engagement with one’s life and surroundings. It takes regular re-commitment to stay tough, to remain a part of the game, and if you’re not careful, you’ll go soft. You need something to keep your head on straight.
“Shotgun” was all about getting back in the game and doing what it takes to find your motivation, with all the twisted and damning ways that can happen in the world of Walter H. White. Jesse’s dissociation had just about pushed him to the edge, but on the ride with Mike he realized he didn’t want to die, no matter what kind of suicidal game he’d been playing at his home. The road trip was also a wonderful chance to see some of the old Jesse returning: That spark and swagger are unmistakable, and the fine degrees Aaron Paul is able to escalate his performance and bring the old Jesse to the surface made the episode that much more rewarding. The writers are always careful to have Jesse exist within a certain mindset, too, no matter how far he goes, and hearing him mouth off to Mike and refer to Walt as “Mr. White,” the way only a former student would, was like going back in time. Seeing him leap into action and save Mike was rewarding, too, but it was the cherry on top to learn that Gus was the one behind it all, having orchestrated a fake rip-off in hopes of inspiring Jesse to action. Logistically, it makes sense because Paul isn’t exactly leaving the show any time soon, so it’s not like Jesse can actually get capped by Mike. But it also works narratively, playing into Gus’ big-picture thinking as well as his canny ability to move the people in his life around him to his benefit, like cheap pieces on a board.
And oh, that car scene. This episode was written by Thomas Schnauz and directed by Michelle MacLaren, the same combo responsible for last season’s gut-wrenching “One Minute,” so I can only assume that Schnauz lives to write these amazing scenes in which a character sits in a car unaware that villains are approaching silently, only to spring into violent action at the last possible instant. When Jesse started idly drumming on the dash of Mike’s car, I thought he might find a gun or a wire or something; I was totally emotionally unprepared for the shock to the nervous system I felt seeing the gunmen glide up quietly behind him and make their approach. A fantastic, suspenseful, nerve-wracking scene, and one you’d expect from an episode that started off with Walt’s Aztek flying through town in a panic.
So Jesse’s motivation was his realization that he might be useful to the team, which was almost exactly Hank’s reaction to the investigation into Gale’s death. Hank’s been finding a balance the past couple weeks, and he’d just about reached a point of gruff stasis when he dove back into the lab notes and crime scene photos. What made his rejuvenation so tragic, though, was the way it came straight from Walt. Hank’s already come within feet of catching Walt before, and any further involvement he has with the DEA or local law enforcement will only be detrimental to Walter’s life, but damn if Walt couldn’t keep his mouth shut. He’s always been petty and prone to jealousy — he could have lived a happy life with Gray Matter if he hadn’t been so bull-headed and territorial — but this was a new low, and my heart broke to see Skylar’s face crack as Walt pushed Hank to realize that Gale wasn’t a genius, that Heisenberg was still out there. Walt’s criminal psychology isn’t uncommon: He doesn’t just want to win, he wants his name to ring out from street corners as his enemies run from the thought of him. He wants to dangle himself in front of the law because he can’t stand anyone else taking even an ounce of credit for blue crystal. Pick your idiom here — the house always wins, you can’t always get what you want, etc. — but there’s no doubt that Walt’s on a collision course with something bad. And with only 16 more episodes after this season, it looks like that dark end might catch him sooner than he thinks.
• “It’s like Scarface had sex with Mister Rogers.” Don’t know how I’m gonna sleep with that image in my head.
• Skylar’s demand of “no more secrets” is, of course, the ultimate impossibility for everyone here. (Something Walt bitterly remembered seeing the Beneke name on a coffee mug.) There will always be layers of deception, confusion, and curious love between these people.
• That’s the first action Walt’s gotten in a long time. Last I can remember was his awkward and horribly misguided attempt to jump Skylar in the kitchen in the second-season opener.
• “You wanna stand there dickin’ around, or you wanna suit up and get to work?” Jesse Pinkman: man of hidden talents.
• “Since when do vegans eat fried chicken?” It’s fascinating to see the different ways in which Gale and Walt are careless, and how they’re playing into each other to ruin Walt’s future.
Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a member of the Houston Film Critics Society and the Online Film Critics Society. He’s also a TV blogger for the Houston Press. He tweets more often than he should, and he blogs at Slowly Going Bald.